Military Leaders Speak Out in Favor of Affirmative Action

Media 06.18,03

Washington: At a forum held today at the Georgetown University Law School, several retired high-ranking U.S. military leaders spoke out in favor of affirmative action as an effective tool in defending the nation’s national security.

Citing the “incredible selflessness that is essential to teamwork and cohesion,” former Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Reeder, pointed to the benefits of integration and the critical component of affirmative action for sharply increasing the number of minorities in the officer ranks.

Organized by the Americans for a Fair Chance, a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF), the forum focused on the history of affirmative action in the military and the potential consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s pending decision in cases involving admissions to the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School. NOTE: audio and video files available as of 2:30 pm at

Appearing on the panel, moderated by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, were Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr., Adm. Dennis Blair, former Assistant Secretary of the Army Joseph Reeder and attorney Virginia Seitz who was counsel of record on the military amicus brief. Becton, Blair and Reeder were among the twenty-nine high-ranking military leaders who signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan.

In introducing the panel, Wade Henderson, LCCREF counsel, said that the court’s pending affirmative action decision was “one of the most important issues facing the nation that will affect America’s institutions of higher learning, armed forces and businesses.”

Reeder also pointed to the sharp divisions within the Bush administration regarding the administration’s amicus brief. Reeder said that Solicitor General Olsen was opposed to supporting affirmative action in any form and was over-ruled by the White House.

Recounting how much the Army had changed, Becton, who also served as President of Prairie View University, reviewed his 40-year military career. He cited segregation in the Army, the racial problems in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, he said, “as long as there is disproportionate opportunity in K-12, we’ll need programs like affirmative action to allow minority youngsters to catch up as long as they meet the same standards when they graduate, which is what the military academies have done.”

Blair, who served as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command, cited the importance of affirmative action in dealing with race riots and breakdowns in discipline in the Navy. “Part of reason,” he said, “was the lack of leadership corps that looked like lowest enlisted ranks in the Navy.” In response to a question asked by Dionne about the class make-up of the U.S. armed forces, Blair supported some type of universal service for all, saying some “Americans born on third base and thought they hit a triple.”

In commenting how the military amicus brief was constructed, Seitz stated that affirmative action can be narrowly tailored and that “nobody has done better than the military…it established high standards and that all candidates meet those standards, they all successfully do it.”

Dionne, whose sister is in the Navy, reserve observed that “wherever people stand on issue of affirmative action, there is broad and deep consensus about the achievements of armed forces in overcoming racial injustice” and that something all Americans are proud of is that the U.S. military “has succeeded in promoting achievement and high performance.”

E.J. Dionne, columnist for The Washington Post and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Lt. Gen. J. W. Becton, Jr., ? served in the U.S. Army for almost 40 years; including command of the 1st Cavalry Division and VII US Corps in Germany, appointed 3rd Director of FEMA, served five years as president of Prairie View A&M University, and subsequently served as Superintendent of the Washington, D.C. Public Schools.

Admiral Dennis Blair, , retired 4-star, served as Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command (1999-2002), where he directed all Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force operations across more than 100 million square miles.

Hon. Joseph R. Reeder, the 14th Under Secretary of the Army (1993-1997), had oversight responsibility for admission criteria for the U.S. Military Academy and the ROTC programs at our nation’s universities. Virginia Seitz, an attorney with the law firm of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP and Counsel of Record for military amici.